The Extraordinarily Odd Estate Plan of Ventriloquist Edgar Bergen

I’ve had the opportunity to read many unusual estate plans.   And I’ve certainly heard of highly unusual (and problematic!) celebrity estate plans.  But the story of vaudeville performer Edgar Bergen’s Will may “take the cake” as the most unusual. 

Edgar Bergen was a vaudeville actor, comedian, and performer who was most well known as a ventriloquist.   He performed with his dummy, Charlie McCarthy, for over forty years, beginning in the 1930s, first in theatre, then radio, and later in television and films.   Bergen was also the father of actress Candice Bergen, most famous for her role as Murphy Brown in the television series Murphy Brown which first aired in 1988. 

Edgar Bergen died in 1978 and his Will included a very unusual provision. Bergen left $10,000 for the benefit of his dummy, Charlie McCarthy.   He directed his Executor to pay the gift to the Actors Fund of America, a charity still in existence today, to establish a fund to be known as the “Charlie McCarthy Fund”, so that Charlie could continue to perform.  Bergen expressed his wish that the money be managed and invested so that Charlie could give charitable performances for those in need, especially destitute and disabled children.  Bergen explained in the Will that the gift was intended for “sentimental reasons” because of the companionship he had received from Charlie throughout his life.  Notably, Bergen failed to leave anything to his daughter whose career had not yet taken off. 

A trust for a dummy!  That’s a new, and certainly strange, one for me!  You may be wondering… would this even be legal now?  Sort of.  Massachusetts law does not allow trusts to be established for the benefit of tangible personal property (which a dummy is).  It does however allow charitable purpose trusts – trusts without specified (human) beneficiaries that are established for certain charitable purposes.  This law became effective in Massachusetts in 2012 when the Uniform Trust Code was enacted.  I believe the Charlie McCarthy Fund is a charitable purpose trust that would be legal in Massachusetts. 

I am not sure if Charlie ever actually performed after Bergen’s death.  Charlie was later gifted to the Smithsonian Museum by the Bergen Family Foundation.  If you want to learn more about Bergen’s Will and the impact of this unusual gift on his family, check out Candice Bergen’s 2015 autobiography, A Fine Romance. 

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